Directed by Mark Romanek
103 minutes (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Apart from a series of opening titles, Mark Romanek’s cinematic adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, filmed from a screenplay by Alex Garland and given a limited release in the United States in September of last year, presents its audience with very little that seems out of the ordinary. It is a powerful, haunting work of science fiction with no use for the genre’s usual trappings. Except, that is, for those opening titles, absent in the novel, which set the scene in the kind of prose whose science-fictional texture hearkens back to Star Wars:
The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952. Doctors could now cure the previously incurable. By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.
The film then begins to drift placidly, as did the novel, through British towns and fields, beginning in the 1970s and carrying us into the 1990s. The characters seem familiar enough: students in a boarding school and their teachers, known as “guardians”, and a very few doctors, waitresses and ancillary others who appear rarely, briefly. Without the opening titles, one could easily fail to notice that this is an utterly unrealistic film set in a hypothetical parallel world, that the young women and men whose destinies it follows are in fact clones created—farmed, as it were—for their organs. But the titles are there, and their presence reminds us that Ishiguro’s novel, despite its lack of such external markers, is nonetheless like the movie: a compact garden carefully landscaped to incorporate the scenery beyond its walls. Take a step back, raise your eyes, and you realize that this is sci-fi country.
Never Let Me Go is a British film, but Fox Searchlight Pictures was one of its producers and it has been distributed worldwide by 20th Century Fox. It would not be all that far off, I think, to consider it a Hollywood film—but it is a somewhat unusual instance of Hollywood sci-fi in two crucial respects.
Generally speaking, Hollywood sci-fi flicks boil down to two essential elements. The first is its human protagonists; the second is the fictional reality that these humans inhabit. In one manner or another, the fictional reality comes crashing down around humanity’s shoulders, and the humans struggle to survive. This is the basic pattern—think Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow and so many more. In some movies, we find the elements shuffled somewhat, so that the fictional reality is constituted not simply by a non-human landscape but by non-humans. War of the Worlds is a good example, as is Planet of the Apes and the films in the Alien franchise. In recent decades, too, we’ve seen the line between the human and the non-human wear increasingly thin as various clones and replicants that look perfectly human but aren’t are given big roles on screen (Blade Runner), and the hybridization of the real and the unreal with the advent of virtual reality (Total Recall). The Matrix, of course, was a towering sci-fi Dagwood sandwich—it had it all.
The movie Never Let Me Go takes another step forward. Here, not only has the line between real and unreal blurred within the story, but its fictional reality has drawn so close to our reality that it seems its world might as well be this one. It’s impossible to tell at a glance what separates that space, glowing coolly on the screen, from our own. And yet the difference is there—crucially, unmistakably. Then again, not only are we confronted with creatures that look just like ordinary humans but aren’t exactly, but these non-humans have taken their place as the film’s protagonists. I can’t help wondering whether we might be witnessing here the beginning of the end of the anthropocentric Hollywood sci-fi flick (recall the fate of the old white man-centric Western) and whether, as Never Let Me Go would seem to suggest, its disappearance will look something like what Michel Foucault once described as the “end of man.”
The freshness of Never Let Me Go’s take on sci-fi is perhaps part of what inspired Wai-chew Sim, in a recent book about Kazuo Ishiguro and his works, to compare the novel to Michael Bay’s 2005 movie The Island, released in the same year. The Island would seem to have been the first sci-fi film to have clones as its protagonists, and its clones, too, have been created for the sole purpose of providing organs to ordinary humans. As Sim points out, however, there is an enormous difference between Bay’s film and Ishiguro’s book: While the clones in The Island are shocked to discover their provenance and take up arms against the society that seeks to control them, “the most shocking thing about [Never Let Me Go] is that the protagonists accept so matter of factly the horrific fate ordained for them.”1 Critics have often remarked on the “tight control” Ishiguro maintains over his prose and the structure of his plots, and over the affection he seems to feel for characters who are themselves “tightly controlled” models of self-restraint. But this is not what makes the clones in Never Let Me Go so different from those in The Island. They are unique, rather, because Bay remains in the grip of the anthropocentric urge, while Ishiguro has stepped beyond it. Ishiguro has the guts to make his characters, though human in all superficial ways, thoroughly non-human in the ways that truly matter.
The protagonists of The Island may be stunned to learn that they are clones, but they remain unchanged by this knowledge; they are still the same fundamentally decent individuals. Slvoj Žižek once wrote, in discussing Blade Runner, of “the total loss of the hero’s symbolic identity” that occurs when he realizes he is a replicant: “He is forced to assume that he is not what he thought himself to be, but somebody-something else.”2 Another character, Rachel, “silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant”, overcome by a “silent grief over the loss of her ‘humanity.’” This would seem inevitable, at least in the context of a Western understanding of the human, but that complex sense of loss, and of gain-in-loss, is casually elided in The Island. Tom Lincoln, the hero of The Island, remains settled in his human consciousness despite having the body of a clone, and even as he fights to liberate his fellows in this parable of the emancipation of the slaves he is not entirely one of them. Žižek suggested that the replicant Deckard in Blade Runner is a homophonous stand-in for Descartes and his cogito ergo sum; Tom Lincoln would seem an almost too-obvious splicing of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Now let us lower our gaze from the sci-fi mountains to the enclosed, neatly landscaped garden of the novel. Why, in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, do the clones react so calmly when they learn that they are clones? A reason is clearly suggested: Ishiguro subtly lays it out, plants the clues. If in The Island the protagonist, a clone, should strike us as sincere, genuine and warmly humanistic in comparison to the true humans and their fake, conniving inhumanity, it is because we are coaxed into sympathy with his oppression; because we see in him the familiar, all-too-human figure of the downtrodden. The emotion we feel reading Never Let Me Go, when we are touched by the decentness and humanity of its cloned protagonists, is different. This is not the empathy one human feels for another. These clones are not human like us.
The novel is narrated in the first person by a clone named Kathy H. who is now serving as a “carer”, helping fellow clones recover after becoming “donors” for the first, second or third time. Kathy is one of three protagonists, along with Tommy and Ruth, all clones, all raised and educated at Hailsham, a boarding school created for children like them. Kathy recalls the day at school when one of the younger teachers, Miss Lucy, informed a group of students daydreaming about the future what it really held in store for them: “Your lives are set out for you”, she said. “You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs.” As Wei-chew Sim notes, the students are almost shockingly unfazed by this revelation; they gaze back at Miss Lucy with “puzzled, uncomfortable faces” and have “surprisingly little discussion about what she’d said.” One might guess that this is because the students are so obedient, so utterly docile—but they aren’t. The reason, rather, is that Ishiguro has envisioned these clones as creatures defined, at least in part, by their very inability to suffer such a shock. In order for them to be shaken, corrupted by the knowledge Miss Lucy imparts, they would have had to have existed until then in a state of uncorrupted innocence. But they never did. They had no purity to corrupt; it was taken from them before they knew it.
There was, Kathy informs us, little discussion of what Miss Lucy had said. “If it did come up, people tended to say: ‘Well so what? We already knew all that.’ But that had been Miss Lucy’s point exactly. We’d been ‘told and not told’, as she put it.” Told and not told—an enigmatic phrase. Tommy, a bit of a conspiracy buff, describes the technique in balder terms:[He] thought it possible that the guardians had, throughout all our years at Hailsham, timed very carefully and deliberately everything they told us, so that we were always just too young to understand properly the latest piece of information. But of course we’d take it at some level, so that before long all this stuff was there in our heads without us ever having examined it properly.
Telling here is itself a form of brain washing; teaching inhibits, rather than aids, understanding. John Locke spoke of a tabula rasa, replacing the Scholastic faith in innate understanding with a vision of people as “blank slates” transformed by their experiences, and found in this originary blankness the basis for a new respect for the individual, and for humankind. In The Island, Tom Lincoln retains a human consciousness even after he learns he is a clone precisely because he is still the owner of his slate, and the shock he feels is the shock of a thick white line being drawn upon it. Tom Lincoln learns, and rebels. The young clones in Never Let Me Go had their slates taken from them before they were born. They do not learn; rather, they know, and so they can’t rebel.
Perhaps we might imagine the protagonists of this novel as insensitive radios: signals that others pick up clearly are simply noise to them. Toward the end of the book, Kathy makes three trips to a certain town in search of a woman she knew from Hailsham, known only as Madam. After she succeeds in confirming Madam’s address, she goes with Tommy to talk with her, and they discover that Hailsham’s old headmistress, Miss Emily, lives in the same house. Miss Emily, it turns out, had passed Kathy in the street on one of her earlier visits, but Kathy didn’t notice. Miss Emily had recognized Kathy, but Kathy had not recognized Miss Emily. Ishiguro’s narrators are often unreliable; they say less than they know. But that is not the case with Kathy, who is reliable but possessed of a sensitivity that is slightly dulled. She is a broken narrator, not an unreliable one. The book hums with information that has eluded her attention, of which she remains oblivious. It is as if Kathy holds out her story to us in a bowl riddled with holes.
But if Kathy is like an insensitive radio in some respects, she is also importantly different—as different as she is from an ordinary, perfectly functioning radio: Kathy is intensely, painfully aware of her own insensitivity.
For two years after the students leave Hailsham, they live together in a place known as the Cottages. Here, for the first time, Kathy gets interested and involved in sex, and sometimes she is struck by an overwhelming desire to do it. One day she finds a pile of porn magazines left on a stack of bricks outside the Cottage’s boiler hut, and she takes them quietly inside to examine them. “There have been times when I’ve looked at pictures like that and felt excited”, she says.
But that’s not what I was after that afternoon. . . . In fact, I hardly saw the contorted bodies, because I was focusing on the faces. Even in the little adverts for videos or whatever tucked away to the side, I checked each model’s face before moving on.
It is only later that we come to understand what Kathy was doing then, only after Ruth, in a fit of disappointed pique, tells her friends, “We all know it. We’re modeled from trash. Junkies, prostitutes, winos, tramps. . . . That’s what we come from.” Kathy, we realize, scared by the strength of her sexual feelings, had been looking for the source of her DNA, for her “mother.”
One of the most difficult tasks Ishiguro faced in writing this novel, no doubt, was deciding how the young clones, born to the world without parents, would deal with that gaping absence. Miss Emily informs Kathy and Tommy, with all the pomp and gravity of The Brothers Karamazov’s “Grand Inquisitor”, that “we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that principally by sheltering you . . . we gave you your childhoods.” Kathy, poring over the porn magazines in the boiler hut, in the terrible loneliness of her parentless childhood, shows herself to be as sensitive as any human, if only of the fact that she is not and can never be human. If this awareness wounds her, it also lends to her vision of the world a certain acidity, and Ishiguro allows us, through the story she tells, to share both her pain and the idiosyncrasies of her circumstances.
How did Ishiguro end up writing a novel with clones as its protagonists?
Born in Nagasaki, Japan, Ishiguro relocated to England with his family at the age of five, and though his parents kept assuring him, year after year, that they would be moving back to Japan the following year, he never left England. He grew up suspended between two languages, but fully matured only into English; Japanese is, he has said, a language he understands to some degree when he hears it, but which he cannot write. And so, when he debuted as a novelist, he was a writer with no mother tongue, and a writer for whom writing could be, in part, a means of exploring what it meant to have no mother tongue.
Ishiguro’s first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, were both thematically concerned with Japan and the Japanese. In each work, he created characters of a type unique to defeated nations: people who had once devoted themselves as “good citizens” to a war that was finally lost, and who, even in the postwar era, are unable to casually disavow their wartime convictions. Generally speaking, critics in Japan have proven to be either uninterested in or unsympathetic toward such characters. Ono Masuji, the narrator in An Artist of the Floating World—a painter who enthusiastically supported Japan’s war effort, producing paintings and posters, guiding students toward patriotic subject matter—has been viewed as an unambiguous reactionary, for instance.3 I have also yet to see any particularly sympathetic treatments of Ogata Seiji, the father of Etsuko’s first husband in A Pale View of Hills, either. But surely we ought to be interested in these characters, or at the very least wonder why Ishiguro chose to take them up not once but twice.
I should stress that neither Ono nor Ogata still believes in the wartime goals to which they were formerly committed. They continue to believe, rather, that in the context of the times their convictions could not have been otherwise; that they could not have acted, or even thought, differently. They no longer believe that they were right, but they do not think they can, or should, reject the fact that they once believed they were right. They think, perhaps, that they were justified in being wrong. Men like Ono and Ogata can be distinguished from the postwar nationalists, who cling to their faith in Japan’s wartime goals, but also from postwar proponents of democracy who deny that what was wrong could ever have seemed right. Men like Ono and Ogata hang suspended between two opposing viewpoints, understood by neither, much the way Ishiguro hangs suspended between two languages and cultures, misunderstood in various ways, no doubt, by many of the monolingual, monocultural inhabitants of each. This parallel, I suspect, is part of what drew Ishiguro to these characters, rather than an intellectual interest in the particular content of their beliefs.
The issue of the mother tongue, too, runs through Ishiguro’s fiction. Ishiguro has said there were two matters that particularly concerned him in writing A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World. In the first book, he needed to have Etsuko, a Japanese woman who moved to England in the wake of her divorce and remarriage to an Englishman, and who learned English as a second language, speak in a recognizably foreign style. In the second, he had to find a way to evoke Ono’s particular voice, since, as Ishiguro explains, “he’s supposed to be narrating in Japanese; it’s just that the reader is getting it in English.” He adds:
In a way the language has to be almost like a pseudotranslation, which means that I can’t be too fluent and I can’t use too many Western colloquialisms. It has to be almost like subtitles, to suggest that behind the English language there’s a foreign language going on. I’m quite conscious of actually figuring these things out when I’m writing, using a certain kind of translationese.4
This attitude toward language, and toward writing, is that of a novelist who stands apart from both English and Japanese, who sees himself as belonging fully to neither, and for whom not having a mother tongue, being beholden to no mother tongue, can serve as a spur to creativity. Perhaps Joseph Conrad’s relationship to Polish and English was similar in some way. In this sense, Ishiguro’s literature hovers detached above the language in which he writes, and it seems likely that the phrase “an artist of the floating world” is slyly self-referential.
Ishiguro’s stance as a writer is a far cry from an Orientalist exoticization of Japan, but it is also a far cry from postcolonialist efforts to resist Orientalist stereotypes. I don’t mean by this to suggest that his fiction is apolitical or unrelated to postcolonial concerns. Indeed, to return to Never Let Me Go, we might observe that Miss Emily’s conversation with Kathy and Tommy, between a “guardian” with a sweeping, historical view of everything and two “students” who are no more than “lucky pawns”, could, in its clear pairing of power and powerlessness, easily be transposed into an imperialist context. We might imagine it, for example, as a confrontation between Sir Edward Cust, the imperialist I quoted, via Homi K. Bhaba’s The Location of Culture, in the epigraph, and the colonial subjects he scorns.
By the same token, we might turn Mark Romanek’s adaptation of Never Let Me Go, which I suggested earlier might be the first sci-fi film to treat truly non-human clones as its protagonists, into a very different sort of movie simply by replacing the “humans” in it with “the West” and the clones with “the Rest”, including “the Rest” who are interior to “the West.” Perhaps the closest historical analogy to Hailsham, which was established in order to give clones a human sort of education, is Canada’s notorious Indian residential schools for First Nations children—though I might note in passing that the practice of assigning clone “carers” to look after their fellow clone “donors” is instead reminiscent of the Nazi practice of forcing camp prisoners to work in the Sonderkommando, disposing of corpses.
Never Let Me Go can easily be reimagined as a novel with a vigorous postcolonial message. But there is a reason why that message is not there. Postcolonialism requires that the writer be identified with the non-West. For a writer like Ishiguro, who can identify neither entirely with the West nor entirely with non-West but hangs suspended somewhere in between, postcolonial thought is, perhaps, inadequate as a political tool. Ishiguro stands at a remove from the overtly resistant stance of postcolonialism because his work is rooted in a double denial of English and of Japanese as the mother tongue. Perhaps we might hope one day to see postcolonialism learn from the uncompromising thoroughness of Ishiguro’s double denial. Should this ever occur, perhaps we will come to see in another light the latent force of his approach in this novel, which shows us the weak and the downtrodden, with nothing and no one to rely upon but themselves, still resisting.
Does Never Let Me Go have a political thrust? I believe it does. Perhaps I might suggest certain contours of reading in this novel, somewhat unexpected, that bring into sharper relief a political element that is all but buried in the deceptive ordinariness of its sci-fi past.
In an interview with Ishiguro published in Japan some years ago, the author explained that his original plan for the book involved a nuclear bomb.5 He had been mulling over the plot, he said, since the 1990s, and had the notion that it might focus on a group of youngsters living in a run-down house in the countryside who somehow come across a nuclear weapon or some form of nuclear energy. In 2000, in the process of writing his third draft, he decided to abandon the nuclear weapon motif altogether and introduce in its place a topic that had been in the news since the creation of the cloned sheep Dolly in 1996: genetic engineering. This was closer, he felt, to the issues he was interested in exploring.
In another interview, also intended for a Japanese audience, Ishiguro said that he started wondering “what the 20th century might have looked like if the incredible developments that took place in nuclear physics, culminating in the creation of the atom and hydrogen bombs, had taken place instead in the field of biology, specifically in cloning.”6 What if the resources that various national governments had poured into nuclear weapons projects had been allocated instead to medical research? In the novel, Miss Emily refers to the period “after the war, in the early fifties, when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly.” In the movie, we are told even more specifically of a revolution in medical practice that occurred in 1952, making it possible to treat diseases previously thought incurable. Though no mention is ever made of this in the novel, I would suggest, in light both of the particular timing of this medical revolution and of Ishiguro’s remarks to his Japanese interviewers, that the technological advances that made human cloning a reality in this sci-fi past took place instead of those that led to the atom bomb’s invention and first deployment in our own historical past. Never Let Me Go is set, in other words, in a nuclear-free world.
Herein, I think, lies its extraordinary freshness, its inventiveness as a work of science fiction. The greatest difference between our own reality and the fictional reality of its sci-fi world lies in what didn’t happen. The bomb was never created; the clones were. In a sense, perhaps, we might think of Kathy H. and all her fellow clones as inverted hibakusha—to use a word that hangs suspended now between Japanese and English. They are the victims of the bombs that were not dropped.
Kathy finds it difficult to think things through. So does Tommy, and so does Ruth. Perhaps these young women and men, destined to live truncated lives, incapable of bearing children, have also been engineered to be somewhat less observant and reflective than ordinary humans. Miss Emily, we recall, tells Kathy, “I recognized you, but you may well not have recognized me.” And yet these clones, weak though they may be in certain ways, living their artificial lives, strike us, strangely, as being more decent, indeed more human, than the true humans in this novel—even though we remain painfully aware, as do they, of the difference that divides them from us. Unlike the clones in The Island, the misery of the downtrodden clones in Never Let Me Go is not explained to us, humanized for us, by virtue of the clones’ similitude to slaves, impoverished inhabitants of the developing world, the proletariat. They cannot be identified with anyone else. But at the same time, this non-identity takes them a very long way, and lets them, and us through them, feel something we have not felt before. This is, perhaps, the landscape of a new sort of post-postcolonial literature that Ishiguro, along with a few other writers such as Salman Rushdie and J.M. Coetzee, are gradually remapping.
Indeed, the text of Never Let Me Go seems infused with a consciousness of the alien nature, from our perspective, of the territory it maps—with a sense that its readers are not the proper recipients of its message. A few times throughout the novel, Kathy addresses a reader directly: “I don’t know how it was where you were”, she writes, “but at Hailsham we had to have some form of medical every week”; “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham the guardians were really strict about smoking”; and “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we definitely weren’t at all kind towards any signs of gay stuff.” “Where you were”, presumably, was another school for clones. This is a sci-fi world, and though it is set in the past, this is a past we have never visited before, and over which we have no claim.
In Japan, there is a whole genre of fiction known as genbaku bungaku, “literature of the atomic bomb.” Samples of this type of writing appeared in a collection edited by Oe Kenzaburo titled The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (Grove Press, 1994). As a Japanese literary critic, I find myself inclined to describe Never Let Me Go as an entirely new kind of “literature of the atomic bomb”, in which the bomb does not figure. In the movie, the medical revolution that enables the clones’ creation is said to take place in the very year Britain tested its first atomic bomb in an exercise known as Operation Hurricane. The bomb was a very close copy—a clone, so to speak—of Fat Man, the bomb that had actually been dropped seven years earlier on the town where Ishiguro was born, Nagasaki.
I read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz for the first time recently, and I found that the sound of the title, and even the letters themselves, kept reminding me of Auschwitz. Certain novels, I find, are haunted by the things they are not about. Reading Never Let Me Go, I kept thinking of the phrase “Never Forget”, and every time the name of the clones’ school appeared—every time I saw it there on the page: Hailsham—I heard a sort of vague, stifled echo of another place name. Perhaps it is only because I have read this book both in English and Japanese, and have both pronunciations in my head, that I hear the echo so strongly. I can’t help wondering if Ishiguro, similarly suspended between two languages, hears it too: Hailsham, Hiroshima.